Is Brian Kelly having an identity crisis?

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“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”

 

Noted philosopher Charlie Weis snatched that quote from the great Bill Parcels, introducing it to Notre Dame fans early in his tenure as head coach. It’s a lesson taught often in football, one that can determine the difference between a good football team and a great one. It’s also a lesson that applies to Brian Kelly’s 2014 squad.

After watching Notre Dame’s football program backslide throughout a truly Weisian November, the Irish sit at 7-5 at the end of the regular season, a disappointing finish to a season that started with great expectations and a 6-0 start.

Now the philosophy/identity conundrum needs applying to Kelly and his football program, a group that suffered a late-season identity crisis that not many saw coming.

After dominating November as a head coach, Kelly watched his Irish close the season with four-straight losses, including last weekend’s 35-point pasting by rival USC. A decimated defense, a schizophrenic offense and putrid special teams all disappointed this team down the stretch, a full-scale meltdown that demands total inspection.

Explaining away a lost season by solely blaming things on injuries only scratches the surface of the Irish’s problems. As Notre Dame enters a critical period in the program — the bowl preparation period that should jump-start the 2015 team before spring practice — let’s take a look at the key issues that face Kelly and the Irish as his fifth season atop the program comes to a close.

 

What Should Notre Dame’s Defense Look Like?

The defense the Irish ran out against USC wasn’t the group Kelly and Brian VanGorder wanted to play. It was all they had left.

Saturday’s group included underclassmen at nearly every spot in the lineup, supplemented only by veteran journeymen that for better or worse should be buried on a talented depth chart.

While starters like Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu, Cole Luke and Max Redfield took the field to start the game, the true sophomores — nearly all playing in their first season of significant action — were never supposed to be the foundation of a unit. But injuries changed the admittedly already thin personnel, leaving the Irish severely undermanned.

At its best, the Irish defense played very good football. Shutting out Michigan for the first time in the program’s history and holding Stanford to 14 points are examples of that. Down teams or not, that’s solid football. But as the book was being written (and game tape being produced) about Notre Dame’s attacking, multiple defense, the Irish coaching staff just wasn’t able to counter as team’s shifted their game plan.

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora was the first to expose the Irish’s deficiencies against an up-tempo attack. Scoring 43 points and racking up 516 yards of total offense, the Tar Heels did so against a defense that was still essentially full strength.

During Notre Dame’s bye week, VanGorder spoke with the local media. When asked about the 43 points the Irish gave up against Fedora’s up-tempo defense, he blamed himself.

“I just didn’t do a good job. We got a lot of packages and can play a lot of players in different ways and schemes, and that wasn’t the game really to do that,” VanGorder conceded.

He also acknowledged a key factor that essentially contributed to the demise of this Irish defense.  A system that relies heavily on scheme has a natural enemy in an up-tempo attack, because it forces simplicity to govern your decisions.

“That’s what defensive coaches don’t like. It takes some of the football away from us, takes your inventory and shrinks it, shrinks it way down,” VanGorder said. “Unfortunately, it just removes some of the strategies of the game.”

Those strategies made Notre Dame an incredibly efficient team on third down early in the season, even without natural pass rushers on the field. The Irish thrived in their “sub-packages,” a buzz word that spread in the early season narrative of this team. Those sub-packages were a credit to VanGorder, a new defensive coordinator that allowed young players to get on the field early and do what they did best.

Unfortunately, those packages also masked some of the deficiencies many had expected to see from the start. Deficiencies that came from starting two new defensive ends, both converted outside linebackers. At linebacker, a converted wide receiver was starting in his first game on that side of the ball, while an injured middle linebacker forced a first-year starter and contributor into the fray.

Pair that group with a secondary playing a man-heavy scheme that lost its best player to suspension. A unit that was counting on first-year starters at safety and cornerback was stripped to its bones, the foundation of this defense always one or two bad breaks away from being in a really dangerous spot — a reality Brian Kelly acknowledged from the start.

We saw that danger expose itself in all its ugliness down the stretch. The loss of Joe Schmidt robbed the Irish of its nerve center — not to mention a very productive linebacker. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones took away the only position group operating with elite BCS-level personnel. Forced to play somebody who knew the ins and outs of the defense, Austin Collinsworth strapped on a harness and battled through knee and shoulder injuries to try and bring a pre-snap consistency into the huddle. It didn’t help.

All of this is a long way to cut to the true issue: At its core, what does this defense want to be?

Under Bob Diaco, the Irish had a system and a philosophy. Sure, it gave away little victories, like underneath throws. Yes, it played vanilla and didn’t do a good job of building pressure schemes. But Diaco did that because he thought it was the best way to win the war.

Diaco’s wasn’t the most youth-friendly system, either. The UConn head coach famously kept Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch on the bench as healthy scratches against Denard Robinson in 2010, unwilling to trust either freshman to play assignment-correct football. The Irish were carved up by the Michigan quarterback anyway.

With their depth pillaged, VanGorder and Kelly searched for defensive answers in November. They found none. Personnel was a steep challenge. So was football IQ, an issue that comes with playing freshman, but also happens when you players are learning a scheme devised in the NFL under mad scientists like Rex Ryan.

When things are going good, “NFL scheme” is music to the ears of fans and recruits. It’s also something that players relish — understandably proud of their installation and achievement in a system that draws from football played at its highest level.

But when things are like they’ve been this past month? It’s a four-alarm fire, with the Irish unable to stop the run, cover the pass, avoid the home run or the first-round knockout.

How did USC beat the Irish? Essentially any way they wanted to.

It wasn’t only USC’s skill talent that made the undermanned Irish look silly. It was Northwestern’s, who utilized an up-tempo attack to turn one of the least explosive offenses in the country into a group that scored 43 points against the Irish.

That gets to the point of building a defense. And likely one of the largest lessons VanGorder learned in his return to college football.

“I think the biggest adjustment is how many times a college player has to see something before he solves a problem,” VanGorder said back in October. “And then once he solves it, the ability to recall and not allow it to happen again is difficult.

“They’re so young, and the defense from the last few years they were involved in to this one is so different that they will make the same mistake over and over.”

We saw those mistakes happen. Over and over.

Not just the mistakes that come with freshmen like Nyles Morgan learning on the fly, but in the secondary, where Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield are battling to unlearn some lessons as they try and learn and play better football in their current system.

Nearly every piece of this defense returns next season. That’ll include KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, who should both be back on campus this summer.

But as VanGorder, Kelly and the defensive staff look back on a season filled with peaks and valleys, they’d be wise to strip away the frills and focus on their foundation first.

 

Is Brian Kelly’s Preferred Offense the Right One for Brian Kelly’s Football Team?

As season five comes to a close, Brian Kelly’s preferred offensive system demands inspection. Brought to South Bend as one of the premiere offensive innovators in college football, the transition to Kelly’s aggressive, pass-heavy, spread attack hasn’t always been easy.

Most difficult has been finding the right fit at quarterback. Neither Dayne Crist nor Tommy Rees were natural fits. Then again, neither were Andrew Hendrix, Luke Massa or Gunner Kiel, either.

But Everett Golson’s struggles down the stretch should force Kelly to re-examine what it is he wants to accomplish with his offense. Not just through the prism of personnel or playcalling, but as a head coach, and ultimately as a vehicle to victory.

Golson’s turnover struggles can’t just be pinned on the quarterback. They should also fall on the coach calling the plays.

Right now, Notre Dame’s two most explosive offenses under Brian Kelly took place in 2011 and 2014. And both of those teams were held back by quarterbacks who turned the football over too many times.

For the longest time, the dog to kick was then second-year quarterback Tommy Rees. Whether it was lack of arm strength or athleticism, Rees’ shortcomings are well chronicled.

But Golson has none of those deficiencies. He has the arm to make any throw. The legs to escape trouble and run the zone read. But the 22 turnovers committed over the past nine games makes winning impossible, especially without a defense to bail you out.

Critiquing playcalling is the worst form of fan or media criticism. Analyzing red zone playcalling or offensive game planning — the second item a clear strength for Kelly as a head coach in every season up until now — is an exercise that’s difficult to do without the entire picture.

But if there’s something telling about multiple jet sweeps at the goal line or an over-reliance on the passing game, it’s that Kelly never developed trust in his offensive line when it was time to score touchdowns.

(That’s been obvious just about every time the Irish ran a QB draw inside the 10-yard line.)

Is the problem Everett Golson or Brian Kelly? Maybe it’s a system putting too much onto the shoulders of a quarterback?

Second-year quarterbacks make mistakes. Jimmy Clausen threw 17 interceptions as a sophomore. Brady Quinn completed just 54 percent of his throws. Outside the ND sphere, second-year player Jameis Winston has thrown 17 interceptions this season, a year after winning the Heisman with a sparkling 40:10 TD:INT ratio. A little bit of knowlege can be a dangerous thing.

With Golson the redshirt freshman, Kelly and then offensive coordinator Chuck Martin manufactured an undefeated regular season, leaning on the back of a stalwart defense and play-calling a run heavy, risk averse game. They were unwilling to let an offense beat itself after just living through it. That shows a head coach far more flexible and willing than his critics attest.

That discipline will need to be utilized in 2015. Whether it’s a reformed Golson or the upstart Malik Zaire, the formula for offensive success needs to be examined. The Irish receiving corps returns completely. The offensive line brings back four of five starters, with Christian Lombard swapped out for Mike McGlinchey in the second half, a kickstart to the future at right tackle.

With Tarean Folston set to emerge as a star and Greg Bryant a wonderful 1A, the running game can drive this offense if the head coach will let it. That also means the quarterback being a legitimate option, whether it be Golson (still the odds on favorite) or Zaire, a much better natural ball carrier.

But Kelly may need to once again recalibrate his approach to winning football games.

 

Does Notre Dame’s Coaching Staff Need a Change?

Brian Kelly has shown loyalty to his assistants. He’s also shown the ability to make changes, with the outside additions of Harry Hiestand and Bobby Elliott and the daring move of handing Chuck Martin the keys to the offense, spurring the success of 2012. (Scott Booker was also promoted from the GA ranks to take over as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator before the 2012 season.)

Kelly’s two big hires for 2014 — VanGorder and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur — haven’t shown the immediate impact that the last coaching shuffle did. VanGorder’s late-season struggles are well-chronicled above.

Golson’s struggles also reflect poorly on LaFluer. The first-year assistant, who worked under Kelly early in his career before coaching under Mike Shanahan with the Washington Redskins, was brought on to help improve the quarterback play as the Irish transitioned back to Kelly’s preferred spread attack. That’s obviously been a work-in-progress at best, as Golson’s been plagued by turnovers that have ruined otherwise impressive numbers.

(Some have speculated that LaFleur’s main job was working with Malik Zaire and freshman DeShone Kizer, while Kelly and Golson worked in lockstep.)

What kind of move would Kelly want to make before next season? First, it feels safe to eliminate big name hires like the recently fired Will Muschamp or Bo Pelini. That’s never been Kelly’s M.O. (And if Irish fans forgot how things went the last time Notre Dame let public opinion and Q-Rating determine the defensive coordinator, shame on them.)

But a shakeup might be in order for Kelly. So let’s look around and see where it might come.

First-year offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock ran an offense filled with young skill players and the group improved by a touchdown per game in points scored. He’s also been one of Kelly’s most trusted advisors. But another trusted assistant, former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, is currently unemployed.

Quinn is an offensive line coach by trade, a position currently held by Hiestand. He’s also not likely to take a position coach job after running his own program and coordinating Kelly’s offense for four seasons in Cincinnati. So Quinn might be a move that Kelly would mull, though that could make for some difficult decisions in the staff room.

On the defensive side of the ball, it’s hard to think Kelly’s going to stop supporting VanGorder after 12 injury-and-youth-plagued games. But are any jobs below VanGorder up for grabs?

Defensive assistants Mike Elston, Kerry Cooks and Elliott all essentially learned a new defense along with the players, taking cues and radically rebuilding a defense that spent four years under the singular voice of Bob Diaco. Understanding the dynamic between VanGorder and the three other defensive staff would require CIA-level monitoring devices, and there’s no reason to believe that there’s anything wrong with those dynamics.

Special teams continues to be the one maddening constant that’s shown struggles since Kelly arrived. First handled by Mike Elston, Booker is the face of the unit, though he shares responsibilities with other coaches. A young coach who deserves credit for the tight end position and some key recruiting wins, the Irish fixed their return and coverage issues this season, but then saw Kyle Brindza and the kicking battery fall apart. A year after workshopping and looking for help outside the program, the steps forward the Irish made have been covered up by the wayward kicks and missed holds on the field goal unit.

Kelly has demanded loyalty from his assistants, and also shown it in return: Chuck Martin took a pay cut to leave and coach Miami (Ohio) and several other assistants are paid very well.

But in a year where the Irish didn’t make the type of progress anybody expected, a change could conceivably be on the horizon.

 

Displeasure is Only One Bad Loss Away

The idea of building good will at a program like Notre Dame is a bit pollyanna. Even when you win, there will be people who don’t like how it’s being done. And a loss? What tho’ the odds, that just won’t do. Even if you’re playing the JV defense.

But as the coaching carousel starts to crank up one more time, the hires that we end up seeing at big-time programs — Michigan, Nebraska and Florida — primarily consist of the usual suspects.

Barring Michigan tempting Jim Harbaugh with ownership rights, Florida looks close to hiring Colorado State’s coach. Nebraska might replace a former defensive coordinator with an offensive coordinator with ties to the school. Once again, Jon Gruden and Bob Stoops appear to be going nowhere.

Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s head coach. It’s his first stop that’s lasted into season six since his run at Grand Valley. And while he’s built programs at Central Michigan and taken Cincinnati to new heights, year five had Kelly paying the price for earlier sins, as injuries, attrition and the NFL Draft robbed him of a senior class.

While this year isn’t a mulligan, it won’t be viewed at the national level the same way that it is by hard-core Irish faithful. But expect the intensity to ratchet up. Because after a 12-win 2012, Notre Dame has gone 16-9 the next two seasons. That’s the type of win rate that warms up hot seats, not build statues.

So as Kelly takes stock of his team’s performance this season, it’s worth a reminder that applies to players and coaches in kind:

“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”

 

Notre Dame turns to its strengths to slip past Navy, 24-17

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Navy did what Navy does, wear down its opponent, rely on the option and shorten the game. No. 8 Notre Dame overcame the Midshipmen’s relentlessness 24-17 on Saturday only after the Irish remembered what they do best: Run, run and run to set up the pass.

Four handoffs to Irish junior running back Josh Adams set up a 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson in the third quarter, tying the game at 17. Notre Dame’s next drive featured five runs mixed in with six passes, again culminating in a Stepherson touchdown reception and the winning margin.

“[We] got that close win that everybody’s been waiting for, so we checked that box,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We were able to come up with a victory against a team that’s really difficult to defend, and [Navy] played really well today.”

The Midshipmen playing well most shows itself in their rushing statistics, obviously. They gained 277 yards on 72 carries, an average of 3.85 yards per rush, but perhaps more notable is Navy’s time of possession of 42:42. As best as can be reckoned in the Notre Dame Stadium press box to this point, the Irish have never held the ball for so little time in a game. If they have, it was long, long ago.

“In a game like this you don’t worry about rhythm. You worry about being efficient and being effective with the possessions that you have,” Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams said. “… Whatever chance I get to contribute I have to take advantage of that because you just never know with a great team like Navy — the way they control the ball and control time of possession — when you’re going to get out there.”

Adams finished with 106 yards on 18 carries, including 69 yards on eight carries in the second half alone. Seven of those eight rushes came on the two key touchdown drives, setting a tone for what would lead to success. That is, what would lead to success whenever the Irish had the ball, as rare as that was.

“Any time we go out to the field and take the field as an offense, it’s time to get physical,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “It’s who we are, it’s who we’ve been. We take a lot of pride in being able to pound people. [Adams] is as big a part of that as anybody.”

Complementing Adams, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush ran for 44 yards and a touchdown on seven carries (sack adjusted) while completing nine of 18 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
When halftime came around and the score was tied at 10, concern may have been understandable, but not to an excess. When Navy used the first eight minutes (7:59 to be exact) of the second half to march 72 yards to the end zone and a 17-10 lead, that concern rightfully gained magnitude.

Then came a six-yard Adams carry, followed by a five-yard rush and a seven-yarder from Adams. Next, he broke loose for 30 yards to get into Midshipmen territory. Just when it seemed the Irish were going to match Navy’s triple-option with their own brand of monotonous pounding, Wimbush found Stepherson streaking to the end zone for a 30-yard score and a tie game.

Touchdown answered by touchdown, no matter the offensive means.

Even if Adams was not the final piece of the puzzle, the ground game created the opportunity.

“Obviously it’s no secret that the running game has definitely opened up a lot of things for us this season,” Wimbush said. “Josh came out in the second half and he saw a little bit more, holes were opening up and he did have a more effective second half running the ball.”

Every eight-minute Navy touchdown drive made Notre Dame wonder, if we don’t score here, when is the next time we will even get the ball? By rendering the first half of that thought moot, the Irish put the pressure entirely back on the Midshipmen.

Navy responded to that pressure by settling for a field goal attempt on the next drive, missing it wide left. With that sliver of a window, Notre Dame followed the same recipe, relying on Adams to open up the defense before finding Stepherson to capitalize. Such begat the 24-17 result.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
After junior Chris Finke fumbled a punt, Navy took over possession at the Irish 39-yard line midway through the second quarter with the game still tied at three. Perhaps the best example of the Midshipmen’s habit of wringing the life out of a game, they took more than five minutes to cover those 39 yards for a score.

Navy took its sweet time to such a degree, Kelly considered surrendering a touchdown once the Midshipmen were inside the five-yard line. If they were going to score anyway, why not expedite the process to get the ball back for a chance to answer before halftime?

“It was just one of those things where clock had been utilized to the point where we needed the ball back,” Kelly said. “We felt like we could score if we just got the ball back. There were a lot of things going through my head at that time.”

Kelly opted to play it out, and Navy scored two plays later with 1:08 left on the clock. Notre Dame quickly ran six plays to get within two yards of the end zone with 14 seconds left in the half, lacking any more timeouts.

Wimbush ran up the middle, struggling through a few tacklers, falling into the end zone. If he had not gotten across the goal line, the clock would likely have run out, sending the Irish to halftime trailing by a touchdown and giving the Midshipmen a chance to go up two touchdowns halfway through the third quarter.

“That was huge. We were pretty upset with ourselves for not having points on the board prior, but it gave us a big boost coming into halftime,” McGlinchey said. “We had a great drive there. … Great execution, great job by our quarterback and by our receivers making plays, and we protected pretty well on that drive.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
On the final meaningful play of the game, Navy hoped its insistence on the option had loosened up Notre Dame’s defense enough to catch it off guard. Irish senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti was not fooled.

With a fourth-and-five from the 25-yard line, the Midshipmen were out of timeouts and absolutely needed to gain the yardage. The game was quite literally on the line. Rather than entrust junior quarterback Zach Abey to make the correct read on a typical option play, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo had Abey pitch to senior back Darryl Bonner, in motion. Bonner was to then find senior Tyler Carmona downfield with a halfback pass.

Trumbetti reached Bonner before he could set his feet, forcing a fluttering pass attempt, off-target and short. Senior linebacker Greer Martini had joined sophomore cornerback Troy Pride in vainly trying to catch up to Carmona after initially assuming a run would be coming toward them.

“I saw [Bonner] kind of pulling the ball back so I knew something was up there,” Martini said. “I just looked and [Carmona] was kind of wide open, so I just ran to him.”

If Bonner’s throw was on-target, Carmona likely reaches the end zone without much difficulty. It certainly would have been a first down, if nothing else. Trumbetti made sure none of that would become reality.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Stepherson’s progression from a vague September suspension to the most-reliable and most-productive receiving option is complete. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was knocked out in the first quarter after jumping for a high pass led to him falling on his head/neck on the turf. (Kelly said St. Brown is being evaluated for a head injury.) While sophomore Chase Claypool was productive, finishing with two catches for 28 yards, Wimbush’s focus settled on Stepherson.

“You see from the results that he is such a huge factor now in our offense and he just adds to the already dynamic receiving corps,” Wimbush said. “… I think he did a good job of all the way through to when he was able to get back on the field of preparing himself to take advantage of this opportunity when he got it.”

Stepherson’s route running and hands were both on display on each of his touchdown grabs, quite a transformation from when he was simply seen as a speed threat, albeit an elite speed threat.

His availability and capability also helped Wimbush settle down after a slow start. He reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards, then going 5-of-8 for 92 yards and the two scores in the second half. Four of those completions and 80 of those yards were via connections with Stepherson.

STAT OF THE GAME
A year after having all of six possessions against Navy, the Irish welcomed nine Saturday. Well, technically nine. One of those drives lasted all of two strides before Finke fumbled a punt right into a Midshipmen’s hands. Two kneels to end the game made up the ninth possession. So that makes seven genuine chances with the ball.

Three of those turned into touchdowns and a fourth into a field goal.

Such is how it is when facing Navy.

The obvious impact of those limited possessions and limited time of possession is just that: Fewer chances to score means fewer scores. The inherent side effect is there is no offensive rhythm to be established. Eight game minutes can pass between snaps, after all.

“It’s definitely difficult and coach harped on it a little bit throughout the week that we only had six possessions last year,” Wimbush said. “… I know it was important to take advantage of every opportunity that we got and obviously we didn’t do that, but still came out on top.”

For context’s sake, Notre Dame had 13 possessions in last week’s loss at Miami.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Saturday marked senior day, the last home game for most of the 26 recognized beforehand and even for those who may return next year, that is not a sure thing just yet.

It made sense to also ask Adams if it was his last home game. His NFL Draft prospects have certainly bettered since August.

“My last home game? Nah, no, no, man,” Adams responded. “I owe this team too much to even think about something like that. We’ve worked too hard to get where we are to let any one guy focus on themselves and be selfish. It’s just too important to us as a team to focus on stuff like that.”

Call it a good non-answer, if nothing else.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
4:31 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 0. (11 plays, 58 yards, 2:51)

Second Quarter
12:21 — Navy field goal. Owen White 39 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 3. (13 plays, 49 yards, 7:10)
1:08 — Navy touchdown. Zach Abey one-yard rush. Navy 10, Notre Dame 3. (11 plays, 39 yards, 5:02)
0:08 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush two-yard rush. Notre Dame 10, Navy 10. (7 plays, 62 yards, 1:00)

Third Quarter
7:01 — Navy touchdown. Craig Scott 12-yard reception from Abey. White PAT good. Navy 17, Notre Dame 10. (15 plays, 72 yards, 7:59)
5:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 30-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Navy 17. (5 plays, 78 yards, 1:28)

Fourth Quarter
11:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Stepherson nine-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Navy 17. (11 plays, 80 yards, 3:31)

Notre Dame vs. Navy: Who, what, when, where, weather, why and by how much

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WHO? No. 8 Notre Dame (8-2) vs. Navy (6-3).

WHAT? It is a storied series, if not necessarily a rivalry. Partly due to that, partly as an homage to the original “House That Rockne Built” and partly because otherwise there would be no alternate uniform this season, the Irish will be wearing “Rockne Heritage” uniforms.

WHEN? 3:41 p.m. ET. Considering Notre Dame will recognize 26 seniors before kickoff, tuning in a bit early would include a few of those moments. The last half dozen are likely to be the six senior captains. In order: former walk-on receiver Austin Webster, linebacker Greer Martini, linebacker Nyles Morgan, left guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

WHERE? For the seventh and final time this season, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

NBC has the broadcast, which means an online stream is available at: http://ndstream.nbcsports.com/

For those on the move, take a look at the NBC Sports app. If abroad, enjoy NBC Sports Gold.

WEATHER? It’s mid-November in northwestern Indiana. An unpleasant outdoor experience is something of a given. This weekend is no different. Precipitation is all-but guaranteed, the only question is if it will be rain or snow, with temperatures reaching as high as 50 degrees before falling just below freezing.

WHY? By now, most are familiar with the Navy’s role in keeping Notre Dame’s doors open during World War II. That bit is not legend. It is very well-established fact. That is also the company line as to why this series continues on with never a thought of a break.

On a more philosophical level, they play this game because strange things happen in football and taking the time to reach a result is often worthwhile. If not, the world would be robbed of this Allen Rossum memory from 1997.

BY HOW MUCH? A spread on this game was only intermittently available this week, due to questions about who Navy will start at quarterback. That should hardly matter. To use Irish coach Brian Kelly’s phrase, the Midshipmen triple-option offense is “plug-and-play” at quarterback. Kelly meant it as quite the compliment to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

When available, the line has consistently favored Notre Dame by 17.5 with a combined points total over/under of 59.5, making for a theoretical 38-21 conclusion.

Using that as a baseline, let’s expect the Irish defense to be motivated to have a good showing for the first time in three weeks.

Notre Dame 38, Navy 14. (7-3 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:

Monday’s Leftovers: A need to execute and a need for continued defensive line improvement

Question for the Week (rather, for the Year): On Notre Dame, pride and progress

Notre Dame’s bowl likelihoods and opponents round-up

And In that Corner … The Navy Midshipmen with that pesky triple-option

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

Friday at 4 (Oct. 27): If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE MIAMI GAME:
Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes drowned by Hurricanes

Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Atmosphere, crowd & turnovers doomed Irish from outset

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
The Observer profiles all 26 Notre Dame seniors

After brief benching in Miami beatdown, Brandon Wimbush regroups with Navy on deck

For Durham Smythe, patience finally pays

Leaving a legacy: Mike McGlinchey cements place as leader for Notre Dame

All-American mentality: Quenton Nelson instills high standard as Irish leader

Always working: Drue Tranquill focuses on growth in all aspects of life

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

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Of all the things Notre Dame and Irish coach Brian Kelly changed this past offseason, one difference between that 4-8 disappointment and this season’s surprising success had little to do with those program renovations.

Kelly brought in three new coordinators and a new strength coach, he engaged with his team more often, he developed a more easy-going persona. All those changes played large roles in making Notre Dame a Playoff contender into November this season, but one alteration mattered more. It made the offseason workouts more effective, it made the locker room more intertwined, and it created more on-field accountability.

The seniors became leaders.

In the preseason, Kelly shouldered some of the fault for the 2016 Irish lacking tone-setting leadership. That ownership fit into the aforementioned attitude shift from the head coach.

“I realized that we had some issues going into the season,” he said before preseason practice. “Clearly, we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season. We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.”

Among those off-the-field issues would be the arrests of seniors Max Redfield and Devin Butler, both expected to be veteran presences in the Notre Dame secondary. As a whole, the 2016 senior class was lacking in bar-raising leaders. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones has more personality than can be succinctly described, but he was not necessarily a presence to be followed. Running back Tarean Folston’s knee injury knocked him down the depth chart, through no fault of his own, cutting into any credibility he may have had in front of the locker room. The same could be said for quarterback Malik Zaire.

Linebacker James Onwualu and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell could do only so much, both soft-spoken by nature.

This leadership void was not the sole reason the Irish fell to 4-8, but it was a big reason why 1-3 became 3-6 and why 3-6 became 4-8.

The likes of fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, senior left guard Quenton Nelson and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill made sure that would not be the case again. They are just the tip of the leadership iceberg in the current locker room, and they set the stage for something special in years to come. Whether that act is realized or not, this senior class deserves credit for returning it to rational conversations.

“Whether it’s this year or not, the goal is still to win a national championship,” McGlinchey said Wednesday. “If I can do my part and if it’s not this year, going to next year and years to come, if I can try and help out that process and that cause, then I’ll feel pretty good about that as well.”

McGlinchey and Nelson have been the vocal leaders this season, though with very different approaches when speaking, one measured and thoughtful; the other blunt and to the point.

Tranquill has been the definition of leading by example, overcoming two season-ending knee surgeries to now entertain the possibility of heading to the NFL with college eligibility remaining.

It took Greer Martini all of two weeks to go from tearing his meniscus to returning to the field to lead Notre Dame past North Carolina State. Even the week between, a victory over USC, saw Martini dress and lead the sideline celebrations. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini have played through injuries for much of the year, eliminating any excuse anyone else might lean on.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe returned for one more go-around after being largely forgotten a year ago, his perseverance creating a needed role on this year’s offense. The same can be said for senior tight end Nic Weishar.

Each one of these, along with a number of others, helped right Kelly’s ship. As much credit as the head coach deserves for this season, the seniors earned an equal share.

“I think the legacy of the senior class was to get Notre Dame on the right track again,” Martini said. “Obviously after a 4-8 season, it was our goal to bring back the prestige to Notre Dame … so even if it’s not College Football Playoffs this year, continuing on to next year’s and creating a culture at Notre Dame that’s going to last.”

It is far too soon to tell if that culture will carry forward into 2018, but before that could even be considered, it needed to be reestablished in the first place.

McGlinchey and Nelson deserve credit for that, along with center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars.

Tranquill, Morgan and Martini revitalized a lackluster defense, as did cornerback Nick Watkins and defensive ends Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes.

Smythe and Weishar led a young group of offensive skill position players. Austin Webster earned a scholarship and a captaincy by shepherding the walk-ons and raising the bar of expectations for the entire team.

These seniors fixed an adrift program as much as, if not more than, anyone else did.


The first mentions above of the 13 individual seniors named all included hyperlinks to profiles published by the Notre Dame independent student newspaper, The Observer. Every year, The Observer puts together a special section featuring each and every senior — 26 this year, including fifth-years, walk-ons and transfers. It is a Herculean undertaking for such a small staff.

Kudos to Editor-in-Chief Ben Padanilam and Sports Editor Elizabeth Greason for keeping that tradition going, keeping it going with quality, and for filling my Friday afternoon with more worthwhile reading than usual.

All 26 profiles can be found here.

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Associated Press
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When Navy and Notre Dame meet, many of the usual barometers of success go by the wayside. No, not because it is such a heated rivalry. Rather, playing the triple-option is a unique challenge for the defense, one otherwise not seen (with the exceptions of the occasional meeting with Army or Georgia Tech), and the Midshipmen’s ball control limits the Irish offense’s chances, minimizing the effect of any talent advantage there.

Simply enough, little of what is learned is applicable so much as a week later.

But one thing this weekend will be quite clear: Will Notre Dame play with the pride necessary to close the season 10-2 just a week after a humiliating loss dashed any national championship hopes?

If the Irish are not whole-heartedly engaged this weekend, if they do not absolutely want to play, Navy will expose that and take advantage of it.

“You can stay focused with Navy for 10 plays, 12 plays, and then if you don’t stay focused they get you with a big play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “They’re so efficient in what they do.

“The good thing is we’ve been talking about how important our traits are and they really have to be applied this particular week against this team.”

The loss at Miami was ugly in all facets and undoubtedly a difficult humbling for the Irish to swallow. If that still lingers in their minds, it will show in a sluggish start against the Midshipmen. If it has been put in the past and all focus is on finishing this season strongly in a way not seen since 2012, then even the mind-numbing effectiveness of the triple-option should not phase Notre Dame.

How will defensive coordinator Mike Elko handle Navy’s triple-option?

Before Kelly hired Elko away from Wake Forest, he made sure Elko had plans for the option.

“That was something we vetted out in the interviewing process,” Kelly said Tuesday. “[We’re] very comfortable with what we’ll be doing. This isn’t a defensive coordinator that’s coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”

Indeed, Elko faced Army each of the last three seasons while with the Demon Deacons. Navy may run the triple-option with even more precision than the Knights do, but the tenets are very similar. Aside from his first year there, Elko’s Wake Forest defenses fared pretty well against Army.

In 2014, the Knights ran for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries, a 5.78 yards per rush average, exceeding their season average of 296.5 yards per game.

In 2015, the Deacons gave up only 186 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, a 3.44 yards per rush average, keeping Army well below its season average of 244.2 yards per game.

In 2016, the Knights gained 238 yards on 64 carries, scoring twice and averaging 3.72 yards per rush. They averaged 328.7 yards per game last season.

How will Brandon Wimbush respond to the first genuine adversity of his career?

If Notre Dame’s offense is to return to potency, it will begin with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Sure, the Irish lost to Georgia in week two and the junior quarterback struggled, but that was in his second career start against a known top-flight defense. More may have been wanted from Wimbush then, but little more was genuinely expected Sept. 9.

By mid-November, that is not the case anymore, and his showing against the Hurricanes played a large part in the rout. After all, Kelly benched Wimbush to give him a chance to refocus. Wimbush handled that moment well, but it was still a moment of strife.

“It was tough as a competitor to have someone take your spot,” he said this week. “But I knew it was for the greater good and for the team’s benefit, and I realized that pretty quickly and I went out there and tried to help [sophomore backup quarterback Ian Book] as best as I could because I wanted to win the game just as much as anybody else wanted to win and I wasn’t executing.”

Much like a basketball player needing to hit a few lay-ups to break out of a cold-shooting slump, Wimbush can get back to executing by converting against the Midshipmen.

Which senior will get the loudest ovation?

Notre Dame will honor 26 seniors this weekend before the opening kickoff (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC), and if wanting to learn about each and every one of them, turn to The Observer’s profiles of all 26.

Which senior earns the crowd’s recognition is an unscientific survey and bears no effect on anything, but it is a curious question because there does not seem to be an obvious answer this year. A guess would be either fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey for being both a star on the field and a public face off it, senior left guard Quenton Nelson for being arguably the best player on the team or senior linebacker Drue Tranquill for overcoming two season-ending knee injuries to lead the defense this season.

Then again, there is a good chance Tranquill returns next year — though he says he has not made that decision yet — so perhaps the best bet would be McGlinchey or Nelson. (Yes, Nelson can return in 2018, as well, but he shouldn’t and almost certainly won’t.)

Is this the day, finally, at last, Montgomery VanGorder throws a pass?

The senior and former walk-on quarterback has no career pass attempts. He would need the Irish to have enough of a lead to get into the game, first of all. Then, maybe a third-and-11 would warrant a pass attempt without showing poor sportsmanship. Even to honor VanGorder, Kelly will not risk showing up the Academy.

VanGorder has earned some version of recognition. Most people would have left when their father was fired midseason. Montgomery not only stayed, but he has also remained one of the most beloved players within Notre Dame’s locker room.